Football’s coming back. The adverts for the new Premier League season will be hitting our screens soon, promising the usual drama, more amazing goals and plenty of action. What they won’t mention is the ugly face of the game – the claims of racism which have tainted the family-friendly image of the self-proclaimed ‘best league in the world’.
After several months during which ill feeling festered on both sides, the Anton Ferdinand-John Terry case has finally concluded with Terry being found not guilty of the charges. With the case coming so soon after the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra incident, which saw the Liverpool player banned for eight matches, we have to ask the question whether this represents a crisis in the elite game or just two unfortunate, isolated incidents.
Terry’s words were caught on camera and seemed to be decipherable to most amateur lipreaders – although the sound of what he said was not recorded. His defence, which was upheld, was that he was using them sarcastically, claiming that Ferdinand had wrongly accused him of racial abuse.
Both players admitted laying into each other with swearing and trash talk – not doing a great service for the sponsors and brands who attach themselves so keenly to the English Premier League, or being terrific role models for the millions of young fans who look up to their favourite stars as players (if not necessarily as people).
The incident had wider implications too. Ferdinand’s brother, the former England captain Rio, found himself booed when he played against Chelsea – and there were later suggestions that the bad blood between the two was behind England’s decision not to take both players to the tournament in Ukraine and Poland. Terry was found not guilty of the offence for which he was charged, so let that be an end to the matter. It shows that England’s decision to keep him in the Euro 2012 squad, presuming innocence, was probably the right one.
The not guilty verdict for the former England captain will leave many – players, sponsors and those with a vested interest in seeing the game making a healthy profit – breathing a sigh of relief that the top flight wasn’t tainted by this trial. Perhaps they can think that racism on the pitch can be relegated to a misunderstanding, or a vendetta. But that doesn’t mean that racism is never, was never, and will never be a problem.
The Terry-Ferdinand spat came soon after the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair, which poisoned what was already arguably the fiercest rivalry in the Premier League: between Liverpool and Manchester United.
The United skipper accused Suarez of making a racist remark; the Uruguayan defended himself and said it was a cultural misunderstanding of the term “negrito”; his clubmates wore T-shirts in support ahead of a match; but Suarez was found guilty. When the two sides met again in the league, at Old Trafford, Evra wildly celebrated United’s at the final whistle right in front of Suarez. Again, it was hard for anyone to find the moral high ground.
Gone are the days in England when the major focus of racism in football was off the pitch, where disgraceful racist chanting, banana-throwing and abuse were a sad reality for many black players. But while that kind of behaviour has mainly been eradicated from the terraces, it’s now the players who face closer scrutiny.
It’s probably the case that trash-talking has spilled over into hate speech for many years, but the issue has come to a head now, and the authorities must be seen to take a stand. When there are 40 or more cameras trained on the action at top-flight games, the top players’ every cough and spit is likely to be broadcast. There is no use in pretending it hasn’t happened, or hoping that the problem will go away.
Some will argue that victims of racism should just – to use that horrible phrase – “man up” and get on with it rather than complaining. Some will say that psyching out an opponent is part and parcel of the game, like sledging in cricket – and there may be some merit in that. But it has to be made clear that certain lines cannot be crossed, and certain types of abuse are completely unacceptable – not on a park, not on a pitch, not in a stadium in front of 70,000 paying punters.
Don’t blame the victims for coming forward. Don’t blame the cameras for zooming in on the players’ faces. And don’t hide behind fandom and club loyalty to protect “your” players when they behave appallingly – if you do, you are just as guilty as they are. Everyone has to work together to stop racism from blighting our showpiece sport, and it starts with the fans. If some will continue to believe that ‘their’ players have done nothing wrong, and line up to defend those who have done indefensible things, we will get nowhere.